Plato V. Augustine

November 17, 2017 April 15th, 2019 Philosophy

After reading both Plato’s Symposium and Saint Augustine’s Confessions, one can see how the latter holds certain ideas and concepts that are parallel to those found in the former. Despite the differences in time, men are hindered from their pursuit of goodness, truth, etcetera, by similar, if not entirely identical, desires. That being said, of all of the speeches found in the Symposium, Augustine would connect most deeply to that of Alcibiades.

Alcibiades is depicted as a prominent Athenian statesman, a successful orator, and a well accomplished military general. On top of such admirable prestige, he is also quite physically handsome. With this knowledge in mind, he seeks to seduce Socrates into a lover-beloved relationship in which he is willing to allow Socrates access to his body in return for the knowledge that Socrates possesses [Plato, Symposium, 217a]. To this, Socrates claims that Alcibiades seeks “gold for bronze” [219a] for the beautiful body is nothing when compared to the value of truth.

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Socrates is praised for his “invulnerability to the power of money [219e], his indifference towards base pleasures such as hinder [220a] and cold [220b], his bravery in the midst of combat [220d-221b], as well as his general patience and focus in the pursuit of knowledge [220c-d]. Despite Alcibiades’ reverence of Socrates’ teachings, he is unable to follow in the footsteps of his mentor. Why? Simply because Alcibiades is the personification of ambition and sexual profligacy.

Though he is moved by Socrates’ words, “Wherever I listen to him… my heart pounds and tears flood out… and [his words] made me dissatisfied with the slavish quality of my life” [215e-216a]. Alcibiades’ desires are far too entrenched within secular pleasures. He himself declares, “I neglect myself and instead get involved in Athenian politics” [216a]. His drunken entrance into the symposium suggests a lack of control in the consummation of alcohol. Essentially, his desires make him too weak to live as simplistic a life as that of Socrates.

This simplicity is also something which Saint Augustine does not possess. “I aspired to honors, money [and] marriage”, he writes [VI. vi (9)]. By polishing his skills as an orator, Augustine manages to procure a highly revered position within society, and at one point he finds himself betrothed to a young woman. Despite his well deserved success, he remains anxious. How is it that such accomplishments con not result in happiness? Whiles speaking with his colleagues he notes, “…we had no goal other than to reach a carefree cheerfulness.

That beggar was already there before us… There is no question that he [the beggar] was happy and I racked with anxiety” [VI. vi (9)]. Just as Alcibiades felt as though Socrates’ way of life was far superior to his own [Plato, Symposium, 216a], Saint Augustine was aware that the teachings of the Catholic church and a wholehearted obedience to God would lead to the peace of mind that he sought; “…there was a firm place in my heart for the faith, within the Catholic church, in your Christ, ‘our Lord and Savior’” [VII. v (7)].

He also includes a passage from Matthew 11:29 which reads, “Learn more of me… and you shall find rest for your souls” [VII. ix (14)]. Still, Saint Augustine admits, “I was attracted to the way, the savior himself, but was still reluctant to go along its narrow paths” [VIII. i (1)]. Why is this so? Of all of the secular pleasures that Saint Augustine possessed, he holds the most attachment to one in particular: the fulfillment of his sexual appetite. This is mentioned several times claiming that even though the priest Ambrose was happy in his walk with the Lord, “his celibacy seemed painful” [VI. ii (3)]; “I thought I would become very miserable if I were deprived of the embraces of a woman”[VI. xi (20)] ; “… it was out of my power to live a celibate life”[VI. xii (22)]. With such deeply rooted “protrepsos”, base desires, it seems almost impossible for Saint Augustine or Alcibiades for that matter, to achieve the salvation, knowledge, and peace that they craved. Saint Augustine introduces the concept that people possess a “freedom of will” which explains why we do wrong and suffer judgment. The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes necessity. By these links, as it were, connected one to another, a harsh bondage held me under restraint. ” [VIII. v (10)]. Accordingly, Saint Augustine argues that his “new will”, to place his life into God’s hands, was not strong enough to “conquer [his] older will” which lay in gaining pleasure in material possessions and carnal excitements [VIII. v (10)]. Still, all is not lost.

Saint Augustine would most definitely argue with Socrates’ beliefs in regards to the method by which knowledge, truth, and goodness are acquired. Influenced by Diotima’s concept of the ‘ladder of love” [Bloom 55], Socrates suggests that the progressive enlightenment from a love of superficial objects (the beauty of something) to the understanding of beauty in and of itself can be acquired by self mastery and a genuine desire for truth. One may argue that this idea of the beauty of something as opposed to beauty in itself is synonymous to Augustine’s idea of love of the creation versus love of the creator.

This may in fact be true, however, Augustine does not believe that people possess enough strength of will within themselves to let go of their secular desires without some divine guidance. “Who will deliver him from this body of death except your grace through Jesus Christ out Lord…” [VII. xx (27)]. Throughout Confessions, Augustine makes references to times when God intervened within his own life to give him strength. “I wavered and you [God] steadied me… you did not desert me” [VI. v (8)]. “I had fallen, but your right hand sustained me. You took me thence and placed me where I could recover strength” [VIII. i (2)]. Socrates makes no mention of divine intervention. Because of this, Augustine can argue that the truth that Socrates teaches is as false as that of the philosophers with whom he’d spent his company when he was younger for wisdom is found within the Lord [III iv (8)]. Though Saint Augustine’s devotion to religion results in several disparities between his mentality and that of Plato, neo-platonic sentiments are fairly clear within his work. Had Augustine been a guest at the symposium, he would have appreciated Socrates’ speech and would have argued his position as I have.

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